Aria da Capo
At the event, Millay's allegorical one-act anti-war play Aria da Capo was performed.
It was first performed in 1919-20 by the Provincetown Players, which Millay joined as an actress before she became a playwright. It was called by The New York Times critic Alexander Woollcott “the most beautiful and most interesting play in the English language now to be seen in New York.”
The theme of Millay's play was pacifist, and her husband Eugen Boissevain's first wife lived and died a pacifist. Millay, however, later became a fierce advocate of the United States entering the war against Hitler, in part because most of her husband's relatives were trapped in Holland.
Aria da Capo was produced in 2005 by Ailise O'Neill, who also played one of the three parts. In what may have been a uniquely innovative move, she arranged for the two shepherd parts to be played by two of the three actors who open the play. The other two parts were played by Elliott James-Fisher and Katerina Alkalis.
Ailise had previously been on tour playing the part of Mollie Ralston, the young wife managing the guest house in Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap, the world's longest-running play.
Aria da Capo was published by Harper & Brothers in 1926 as the second of Three Plays. The first edition was published by D. Appleton & Co. in 1921, and an earlier date, 1920, is given on the copyright page, suggesting that one or more of the plays was first published in 1920.
The first play in the book is extremely short and on the surface is simple. Two Slatterns and a King: A Moral Interlude is 12 pages in a small-sized book. A king marries a slovenly woman whom he happened to find once in her life being tidy, whereas the tidy woman was by chance overrun by a dog on the day the king inspected. The message is that chance is powerful and that a sample of one can be dangerously misleading.
The King's Henchman
I wonder whether Two Slatterns in some small way carried the seed of Millay's opera, The King's Henchman. They both have kings who are humiliated and two people who compete for the love of a third. The opera was written on commission for Deems Taylor, who begged Millay to write a libretto for which he would write the score.
The opera opened at the Metropolitan Opera in February 1927 to huge public enthusiasm and critical praise. Lawrence Tibett sang the part of King Edgar, in his first major Met role. Edward Johnson sang Aethelwold, the King's henchman. Florence Easton was Aelfrida, hypotenuse of the love triangle. It was called the "Best American Opera" by The New York Times. Olin Downes of the Times wrote:
At the end of the [première] performance there was a full twenty minutes of applauding. Mr. Taylor and Miss Millay were acclaimed; then Mr. Tibbett; finally Miss Easton and Mr. Johnson. Mr. Serafin, the stage director, and others implicated had been earlier recognized. There was a pause and a silence when Miss Millay said, "I thank you. I love you all," with pardonable impulse and sincerity. Mr. Taylor hesitated, then blurted out, "That's just what I was going to say."It had 28 performances at the Met and toured the nation. The published version sold out four versions in weeks. The opera should be revived–the year 2017 will be the 90th anniversary of the première and the 50th anniversary of the death of Deems Taylor.
The third, five-act, play in Millay's book is The Lamp and the Bell. It is set, like The King's Henchman, in Anglo-Saxon Britain. In fact the story in The King's Henchman is much like that of The Lamp and the Bell. The difference, Millay's biographer Nancy Milford explains, is that "the bond was between two men [in the opera] and not between stepsisters" (p. 287).
Reviving the King's Henchman?
I was recently speaking with Riva Freifeld, who is working on a documentary on Millay, and Michael Cook, Deems' grandson, about reviving the Millay-Deems opera, the first major American opera.
If anything materializes, I will keep you posted here. Meanwhile, please send any ideas that you might have for getting support for this project to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.